How sustainable is your jar of Ragu tomato sauce? That is an insane question, says self-described “anti-foodie” Frederick Kaufman in his TED Talk.

Sustainability, Kaufman suggests, can be sort of like porn: you know it when you see it. But people really want it to be quantifiable. Kaufman describes efforts by a grand consortium of scientists, farmers, agribusiness, and environmentalists to track all the inputs into a product and mush those into one number that would reflect its overall sustainability.

It turned out that one of the biggest hang-ups was that the corporate muckety-mucks calling the shots on the project couldn't decide what the unit of sustainability should be. What do we care about sustaining — energy usage for farming? Production? Processing? Shipping emissions? General sense of feeling good about yourself for buying “green”?

Kaufman pokes fun at the whole idea: for corporations, measuring sustainability mostly means measuring money, he says. But then he seems to get the “two minutes left” high sign and scramble to wrap it up. After 10 minutes of tearing down the idea of measuring sustainability, Kaufman announces it would actually be humanity's greatest accomplishment for this generation and the next if anyone actually could put their finger on what green means. Sustainability! It is ridiculous and also critically important.

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